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Helping children through tragedy

When tragedy strikes: How to help your children

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The horrific scene from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut flashed across TVs for days, broadcasting terrifying images for all to see.

Making sense of what happened didn’t surface quickly, and kids and adults were left to speculate why a 20-year-old would go into a school with the intent to kill defenseless children; 27 people dead, 20 of them first-grade students cut to the heart of every parent.

As our children begin asking questions in the aftermath of tragedy, the subject must be broached.

What do you say? How much emotion do you show? How do you help your child make sense of the senseless?

There are no easy answers, but there are a few dos and don’ts to help your child when tragedy strikes. The biggest consideration revolves around how we, as parents, react to the event. Our children watch and take cues from us.

“If you make it seem like it is something that needs to be discussed, the more your child will get the idea that it is something that they need to be upset or distressed or fearful of,” says family psychologist Shannon Bruno, Ph.D.

Here are other suggestions to help your child cope in the aftermath of tragedy:

• Monitor media coverage. Young children can’t process media replay of tragic events and may begin to think the event is happening repeatedly. There is nothing gained from allowing children to watch media coverage of a tragedy. If older children are curious and look to the TV for information, monitor how much they watch and be ready to discuss what they see.

• Be honest and specific about the event. Don’t try to hide what happened. Our children need to understand the world they live in, based on their developmental age. But don’t over explain, or dwell on the details of the tragedy. Answer questions honestly and give your children the freedom to ask whatever they need to defer their fears.

• Embrace their emotions. Allow your children to “feel” their feelings. It’s OK to feel sad. It’s natural to feel some anxiety. Acknowledge their feelings with expressions such as, “I understand this event makes you feel scared. I feel sad about what happened also.” Offer words of comfort to relay their fears or sadness.

• Be available and offer reassurance as often as necessary. Let your children know they’re safe. Recognize their needs and respond accordingly — some children need more reassurance than others. My oldest daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when she was 5 years old. Throughout her childhood, she was likely to respond to difficult circumstances with more anxiety than our other children, and my husband and I knew to always be available for her during challenging circumstances. Children are also more vulnerable if they’ve recently experienced difficult events, such as a parent’s divorce, re-marriage, death of a family member, or another stressor.

• Recognize what feelings look like in children. Younger children may regress to behavior they’ve grown out of, such as sucking their thumb or soiling their pants, when troubled. Older children are more likely to show their feelings through a defiant attitude or irritability. Children don’t have the ability to process feelings like adults. Watch for anything unusual in your children that could indicate they are experiencing high anxiety or fear.

• Keep routines as normal as possible. Children thrive with routine. When tragedy strikes, it’s especially important to keep a sense of normalcy with school, meals, and bedtime schedules. Children may have trouble sleeping or eating, which can help alert a parent to troubling emotions your child is experiencing.

• Depending on your religious practices, it may be helpful to pray with your child regarding the tragedy. After the Connecticut shootings, my 11-year-old son and I prayed for the families affected by the tragedy and the residents of Newtown. It can be reassuring for a child to pray and ask for God’s help for a distressing situation.

• Suggest doing something with your child that shows compassion or offers help for those affected. Many families have sent cards to Sandy Hook Elementary School to offer their thoughts and prayers for those families. Some lit a candle for each child represented. Children experience a sense of well-being by showing compassion and offering help in a situation that appears hopeless.

• Seek professional help for your child if troubled emotions don’t subside after a period of time. Mental health professionals are trained to help children of all ages cope with difficulties. Depending on the level of exposure to tragedy or other challenges children are dealing with, they may get stuck in their anxiety or grief and unable to move forward. Don’t hesitate to find help sooner than later if this happens.

Tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shootings carry a weight heavy to bear. They’re especially difficult for young children to make sense of or cope with.

Helping our children process their emotions, while shielding them from graphic details, offers them healing and the gift of hope to continue on their young journey with renewed strength in their ability to cope with life’s next challenge.

Gayla Grace is a freelance writer, wife, mom and stepmom to five children in her blended family.

Updated 7:07 pm, October 28, 2016
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